Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul

Reviewed by: Priscilla Scherer, RN


August 05, 2002


By Ariel Glucklich
Oxford University Press
Copyright 2001
278 pages
ISBN: 0195132548
$27.50 hardcover

By design, tradition, or corruption, ritual pain has become an aspect of innumerable religions and communities. Think of religious martyrdom, monastic denial and self-flagellation, rites of passage among tribes (and fraternities) from Africa to the Americas, and austere barefoot pilgrimages across South Asia.

But why would anyone invite flogging or crucifixion, sleep on spikes, hang suspended by hooks in one's flesh, or walk across miles of scorching desert sand with bare, bleeding feet? Author Ariel Glucklich set out to answer this question in his fascinating and densely detailed book, Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul. Indeed, Glucklich, an associate professor of theology at Georgetown University, examines the function of pain as part of the redemptive pilgrimage from numerous angles and distances, then turns it over and examines it some more.

In his opening chapter, "Religious Ways of Hurting," Glucklich introduces the reader to the extraordinary complexity of his subject. He describes the uses of pain and suffering in terms of identifiable models, or ways of considering them in the religious context: the juridical model (pain as punishment, or suffer now so you can avoid it for eternity); the medical model ("when pain transgresses the limits, it becomes medicine"); the military model (pain as the enemy to be subdued or, the other side of the coin, pain as the subduer of fleshly desires); the athletic model (pain is God's training for the faithful); and the magical model (enduring certain kinds of pain bestows powers/purity/immortality/passage from one state of life to another).

Glucklich then moves on to the neurologic and then the psychologic underpinnings of transcendental pain. For a reader with more medical than theological knowledge, this is where the book comes out of the clouds and into the nitty gritty. This theologian does a fine job of elucidating the evolving hypotheses of the physical and emotional experience of pain, while never moving too far from his own interest.

"The goal of religious life is not to bring anesthesia but to transform the pain that causes suffering into a pain that leads to insight, meaning and even salvation," Glucklich contends. "This is the essential paradox of sacred pain: that the hurting body does not suffer silently. It offers a potential voice, if one has the tools to make the soul listen."

He discusses the role of ritual pain as a form of sacrifice that benefits the society, calling it "community enhancing self-sacrifice." He asserts that the subjugation of the initiate, through painful rituals, not only augments the power of the tribe or club, it strengthens the initiate's commitment to it. (I would further argue that by the time a warrior has endured the pain of eagle claws piercing his chest and later being ripped from his skin, the thought of being wounded by an enemy's arrow, knife, or bullet would be a piece of cake by comparison, and not to be feared.)

The compelling final chapter, "Anesthetics and the End of 'Good Pain,'" is essentially a history of thought about and practice of relieving pain, which came up against much resistance from physicians, patients, and theologians alike. The author tracks the neurophysiology of pain and pain relief and then journeys seamlessly into the developing problem of hysteria and the rise of psychiatry in defining neuroses. He contends, in part, that the use of anesthesia helped to lift the status of the physician while subjugating the autonomy and power of the patient.

Glucklich's view is that pain has "served humanity in a variety of constructive religious and social ways." He argues that anesthesia and pain relief have, perhaps, robbed us of the ability to understand how pain can be valuable "for mystics, members of religious communities, and perhaps humanity as a whole."

"The role of pain, before it was displaced, was rich and nuanced...," he continues. "Our failure to remember -- to recognize -- this fact is a direct legacy of the nineteenth century's medicalization of pain and elevation of nervous disorders (followed by psychoanalytical pathology) to the understanding of human religious behavior." He is not arguing that pain should go unrelieved, but that it may not be a bad thing in all cases, and in some cases, it may be a good thing.

Glucklich's pursuit of this topic was initiated when his friend Jacob Goren, who suffers excruciating and unrelievable phantom limb pain, saw a television show about Filipinos who offer themselves to be crucified during a Good Friday ritual. Goren wondered aloud why anyone would voluntarily subject himself to pain. And Glucklich answers that question thoroughly. Clearly, though, Goren's underlying question was more that of a patient with intractable pain who wants to know how he himself might transcend his pain.

Simone Weil wrote that "nothing is worse than extreme affliction which destroys the 'I' from the outside, because after that we can no longer destroy it ourselves." In quoting Weil, Glucklich seems to be saying that if you yourself seek out the pain, and can impose a meaning onto it early enough, then you can transcend the pain. Unfortunately, for those consumed with pain, it's likely too late to impose the kind of meaning that can rescue their "I." Their "I's" are by then defined by pain, and they simply desire relief rather than transcendence.

Sacred Pain is not for the casual reader. But anyone with a serious interest in religion, pain and suffering, and/or the anthropology of the "community" will find much food for thought in this book. Glucklich sometimes floats away from his point into tangents of dense abstraction. These undoubtedly will be enlightening to many readers, although this one found herself muttering "Wha??" from time to time throughout. Nonetheless, if you cut through these occasional fogs, Sacred Pain offers valuable insights about pain, belief, and Western society's conflicting attitudes about pain and suffering.


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